Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Leave A Tender Courtroom Alone

If the last two singles from An Innocent Man - also the last two songs in the album's running order - haven't quite received the airport lounge ubiquity treatment that the other singles have, don't worry, someday they will. Billy didn't even put them on his ludicrously selling (23 x platinum?) Greatest Hits Vol. I & II; instead they had to wait for the post-retirement Vol. III (!). Nevertheless, I have to say they sum up the album's themes with (relative) grace and panache, and almost represent the last time Billy didn't sound like he was desperately trying to play the role of '80s superstar (*cough* The Bridge and Storm Front *cough*).

"Leave A Tender Moment Alone" is one of the few songs on the album that doesn't reek of Brinkley. It's a slow jam, but not tortured or desperate like the title track. Here Billy is playing the queasy high school freshman, panicking over how to handle that delicate back seat ritual at the drive-in. According to Wikipedia, it's an homage to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, but perhaps in Billy's mind, the Miracles once put out an imaginary single where Stevie Wonder showed up to play harmonica. At first I thought it was Billy himself making that chrome squeal (I think he played harmonica on "Piano Man" and some other songs), and I didn't realize he could play it so well! That's because it was actually played by Belgian jazz musician Toots Thielemans, who coincidentally also played the harmonica on "Too Late For Goodbyes" even though Julian Lennon pretended to play it in the video, so there you go. Also like "An Innocent Man," Billy attempts to sing some iffy falsetto notes, to semi-soulful, semi-awkward effect, but overall the song's got that effortlessly melodic and breezy magic that Billy seemed to be farting out at this point. Although it went #1 Adult Contemporary, I think it got robbed with a mere pop peak of #27.
Even though I'm in love
Sometimes I get so afraid
I'll say something so wrong
Just to have something to say

I know the moment isn't right
To tell the girl a comical line
To keep the conversation light
I guess I'm just frightened out of my mind

But if that's how I feel
Then it's the best feeling I've ever known
It's undeniably real
Leave a tender moment alone

Yes I know I'm in love
But just when I ought to relax
I put my foot in my mouth
Cause I'm just avoiding the facts

If the girl gets too close
If I need some room to escape
When the moment arose
I'd tell her it's all a mistake

But that's not how I feel
No that's not the woman I've known
She's undeniably real
So leave a tender moment alone

Finally, we come to "Keeping The Faith," which peaked at #18 in its own right, but makes more sense as the album's closing track, because it is, if you will, what a college professor might call the album's "thesis statement." "Keeping The Faith" is deliberately the one song on An Innocent Man with highly personal lyrics that could have never passed for early '60s radio fare. It is more or less Billy's sheepish explanation for the entire album. I just imagine some fan, with requisite Brooklyn accent, giving him a hard time after listening to tracks one through nine: "Hey Billy, what's with all the oldies crap, eh? You obsessed with some kind of 'golden age' or somethin'?" Right on cue, here is the man's well-reasoned reply:
If it seems like I've been lost
In "let's remember"
If you think I'm feeling older
And missing my younger days
Oh, then you should have known me much better
'Cause my past is something that never
Got in my way
Oh, never, huh? Billy quickly undercuts this declaration by proceeding to spend several minutes playing "let's remember":
We wore old matador boots
Only Flagg Brothers had them with a Cuban heel
Iridescent socks with the same color shirt
And a tight pair of chinos
I put on my shark skin jacket
You know the kind with the velvet collar
And ditty-bop shades

I took a fresh pack of Luckies
And a mint called Sen-Sen
My old man's Trojans
And his Old Spice aftershave
Combed my hair in a pompadour
Like the rest of the romeos wore
A permanent wave, yeah
We were keeping the faith
Whoa old man, easy on the details. This is like Billy's version of "Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man, where Meredith Willson tries to name as many bygone American products as he can within the span of five minutes (incidentally, both songs mention "Sen-Sen," which therefore must have been popular between at least 1910 and 1960). No, Billy, I don't know the kind with the velvet collar. I do, however, know what Trojans and Old Spice are. I feel like I'm sitting around the retirement home while everybody talks about all that forgettable cultural detritus that each generation takes pride in, because there's a kind of pride in simply living through an era, whether the future of the human race will care about it or not. That said, Billy's nostalgia isn't entirely rose-colored:
Learned stickball as a formal education
Lost a lot of fights
But it taught me how to lose O.K.
Oh, I heard about sex
But not enough
I found you could dance
And still look tough anyway

I found out a man ain't just being macho
Ate an awful lot of late night drive-in food
Drank a lot of take home pay
I thought I was the Duke of Earl
When I made it with a red-haired girl
In a Chevrolet
We were keeping the faith
So sure, he's reminiscing, but he's not willing to pretend that everything back in his youth was "perfect." He lost fights. He should have learned more about sex than he actually did. Making it with the red-haired girl did not instantly catapult him to neighborhood dukedom. Still, "Keeping The Faith" is almost in danger of becoming a proto-"We Didn't Start The Fire" that's just one big list, when ... wait! What's this surprisingly insightful bridge here?:
You can get just so much from a good thing
You can linger too long in your dreams
Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies
'Cause the good ole days weren't always good
And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems
Ah, yes. Like Owen Wilson in Midnight In Paris, Billy catches himself before he declares the present era a cultural wasteland. "All right, I had fun making my awesome oldies album, but now it's time to embrace the present." The irony is that, while "tomorrow" might have seemed pretty good to Billy Joel from the vantage point of 1983, I don't think his last three albums were the best way to illustrate that maxim; as Stephen Thomas Erlewine suggests in the album review, An Innocent Man "unwittingly closes Joel's classic period." If anything, "Keeping The Faith" is more successful lyrically than sonically. Did Phil Ramone just pull the horn section out of a freezer? Didn't he know that you have to cut the horn section in half, turn it inside out, and stick it back in the microwave for five more minutes, because otherwise it won't cook right?

"Ah," you say, "but where's the tacky video?" Just chill, Billy's got you covered. The video finds our piano-playing hero "on trial" in "Music Court," but for what crime, exactly, no one can say. In a set-up straight out of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and numerous other sentimental courtroom dramas, Billy hasn't spoken a word in his defense until the very, very end of the trial. Quite how Billy failed to earn an Oscar nomination for his acting performance here ("You know, judge? They say justice is blind; I sure hope it ain't deaf") is beyond me. And what kind of court room has a bench that doubles as a jukebox? All I know is that once he slips that over-sized coin into the "slot," he's got the jury in the palm of his hand. Given that, by the end of the video, the judge is dancing his way down the courtroom steps, I think it's fair to say that Billy has "won" the trial. We also get appearances by a certain future Mrs. Joel (as the red-haired girl in the Chevrolet), Richard Pryor, and even, God bless the '80s, a winking Joe Piscopo. You know, for a (tender) moment there, I'd almost lost the faith.

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